Who was Davy Crockett? If an outspoken, bear-killing frontiersman in a coonskin cap is what springs to mind, that’s just what the eccentric outdoorsman and politician would have wanted. Crockett was obsessed with shaping his public image—and he was willing to stretch the truth to do it.
Take his 1834 portrait. It’s the most famous image of Crockett, but the majestic-looking canines that surround him weren’t his. Rather, they were stray dogs he rounded up on the streets of Washington, D.C. before the portrait was painted. This shrewd manipulation was all part of his carefully constructed persona—one he worked to his personal and political advantage.
Crockett’s early life was so tumultuous the plain facts seem like one of his tall tales. Born in 1786 in Virginia, Crockett was indentured to a cattle driver by his father when he was just 12. Crockett ran away when his boss, Jacob Siler, refused to release him from service after the cattle drive was done. When he came home, his father was furious. Davy ran away from home again. He called this period of his life his “strategic withdrawal.” For over two years, he traveled and worked for others until he returned home to attempt to work off his father’s financial debts.
As an adult, Crockett transformed a lack of education and a renegade political stance that could be considered political poison into national popularity. At the time, American politicians were part of the elite, educated class. Crockett was not—but he had a fierce sense of independence that he used to shape his persona.
His outsized ambition was matched by the growth of the new United States. The U.S. had recently made the Louisiana Purchase, expanding the country’s holdings by over 530 million acres and creating a gigantic new territory to explore and occupy. In 1810, the U.S. also acquired West Florida from Spain. Crockett enlisted enthusiastically in the Indian wars white settlers fought against Native Americans as they threw them out of their lands and fought for sovereignty over the U.S.’ new territories. By 1827, it was clear that Crockett, now a married veteran and a respected member of his community in Carroll County, Tennessee, was a born leader.
So he entered politics—and began to manipulate his public image. When a fellow Tennessee state legislator called him a “gentleman from the cane,” deriding the thick thickets that surrounded his area, Crockett demanded an apology and nearly began a fight. But when he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, he realized that a populist, backwoods reputation might benefit him.
As Tennessee’s newest representative, Crockett cast himself as a simple but colorful country man. He developed an off-the-cuff public speaking style that was both homespun and defiant—and constituents loved it. Crockett refused to abandon his folksy roots just because he now held office. And he wasn’t the only one. President Andrew Jackson, who had led him into battle in the Tennessee militia’s battles against the Creek people, was a close ally. Jackson had been voted into office on a strong populist platform. And when Crockett began to disagree with Jackson, his backwoods reputation helped even more.
Jackson planned to sell vacant lands in Crockett’s district at a rate that was higher than what Crockett’s constituents could pay, so Crockett rebelled. His opposition to the Indian Removal Act, the 1830 law that set the forcible relocation of Native Americans into motion, further alienated him from Jackson.
Crockett’s rebellion—and his fascinating storytelling—endeared him to his constituents and expanded his reputation on the national political stage. By 1834, his name was floated as a potential Whig political candidate. By then he was a bona fide folk legend.
Throughout his public career, Crockett relied on his increasingly rustic, comedic persona. On a visit to Boston, for example, he charmed a crowd with a story of his supposedly awful table manners at an exclusive dinner party at the White House. “When we were all done eating, they cleared everything off the table,” he told his laughing audience, “And what do you think? There was another cloth under it. If there wasn’t, I wish I may be shot.” Listeners delighted in his tall tales about his ability to hunt and survive in the outdoors, and loved his fierce motto: “Be always sure you’re right—then go ahead!”
“In Washington, he behaved as a respectable congressman but enjoyed the attention he received as a rough, far-west backwoodsman,” writes historian William Groneman. “In west Tennessee he remained a trustworthy and reliable frontier neighbor, but enjoyed the status of his congressional title.”
Playwright James Kirke Spaulding parodied him in a wildly popular play called “The Lion of the West.” The play’s main character, Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, was clearly based on Crockett, and Crockett even went to see it in Washington. And when an anonymous biography that presented Crockett as a bizarre pioneer superman appeared, Crockett whined a bit in public, then commissioned an “autobiography” of his own.
A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee portrays Crockett as a simple, heroic country man—another politically expedient persona. But perhaps his biggest PR coup was when he sat for John Gadsby Chapman. Though the original portrait was destroyed, Chapman left behind an account of how he painted Crockett, and how Crockett rushed around Washington looking for props (including those infamous stray dogs) that would uphold his frontier image.
Crockett loved the swashbuckling portrait, and when someone suggested Chapman change it to make the hatchet more realistic, he reportedly exclaimed “Don’t you go to altering my picture for any body’s nonsense. If any man in New York says I don’t know how, or where, to stick my hatchet, send him to me and I’ll show him.”
Chapman’s portrait is the most famous of Crockett—and there’s not a coonskin cap to be seen. Though Crockett apparently did wear a coonskin cap at times, it was not his common dress. That stereotype seems to have come from “The Lion of the West,” but it persists today.
Crockett didn’t seem to mind. After all, his wild persona served him well, especially after he was defeated for re-election after a second term. He went to Texas instead as commander of an armed group intent on helping Texas secure independence at the Alamo. He died defending the Alamo on March 6, 1836—but his outsized frontier reputation never has.